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15-Passenger Van Widely Used Despite Risk

Dec 30, 2003 | The Post and Courier

Schools are not supposed to use them, but there's nothing to prevent anyone with a driver's license from renting or buying 15-passenger vans that are prone to roll over and kill or injure people.

Thirteen family members and a friend traveling near Charleston on Sunday joined a growing casualty list linked to the vans, which have been involved in more than 1,000 fatalities nationwide since 1990.

The death toll prompted numerous recent safety warnings and federal legislation banning sale of the vans to schools. Still, families with children routinely rent the vans, popular among church groups and sports teams, and aim for the highways with little more qualification than standard driver's licenses.

Anya Carson survived Sunday's crash on U.S. Highway 17 south in Jacksonboro. She said the family was not aware the vans were prone to rollovers.

"We didn't know anything about it," Carson said Monday during a telephone interview from her hospital room at the Medical University of South Carolina. "We wanted a van so the family could be together."

Mark Boyles, manager of Hoffman Rental in Lexington, N.C., the company that rented the van involved in the accident, said he is not required by law to give renters safety advice about the van, but he does so as a courtesy.

"I definitely make the customer aware that it is not a car they are driving," Boyles said. "I tell them it has a higher center of gravity and to take it easy and slow down. It sits up high, and it's more likely to roll."

Boyle said he told the woman who rented the van that it required extra caution. He didn't know if she shared that information with two men listed as drivers in the rental paperwork. One of them was believed to have been driving when he swerved to avoid hitting a dog and the van rolled several times.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 15-passenger vans require special driving skills, particularly when fully loaded. A van carrying 10 or more people is three times more likely to roll over than one carrying fewer than 10.

"There is no special training for driving a van," said Shelton Watts, vice president of Raleigh-based Triangle Rent A Car, which has operations in the Carolinas and Virginia. "We do advise people to be very careful. We rent quite a few of them."

The vans have been the subject of scrutiny in recent years following several high-profile accidents involving college sports teams. Last summer, a 15-passenger van carrying a group from Christ Gospel Church of Charleston blew a tire and flipped over four times on a Kentucky interstate highway. Several were injured. "We're just glad to be alive," Juann Edmondson said after the crash.

"There are a lot of them out there," said Max Young, director of highway safety for the S.C. Department of Public Safety. Sunday's crash involved a 1996 Ford Club Wagon. Several other auto manufacturers make 15-passenger vans. Some 500,000 are registered nationally.

Young said the only South Carolina regulation he's aware of is Jacob's Law. That law virtually bans public and private schools from using new or used vans to transport children. The federal law was directed only at new or leased vans.

Former Gov. Jim Hodges signed the law in May 2000 after lobbying from Columbia resident Lisa Strebler. Her 6-year-old son, Jacob, was killed July 12, 1994 while riding in a 15-passenger van owned by the private school he attended.

Authorities said several people were ejected from the van in Sunday's crash, sometimes an indication that seatbelts were not latched.

According to research by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 80 percent of people killed in rollover crashes in 15-passenger vans were not wearing seatbelts.

Carson said she believes everyone in the van was wearing a seatbelt.

Boyles, the man who rented the van to the family, said he frequently takes his own family on vacations in 15-passenger vans, including a trip last year in the same van involved in Sunday's accident. "This is our first incident with one," he said of the 30-year-old company.

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